Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Will the answer ever be reconciled? Here’s another to ponder: When you decided upon a destination to where you wanted to travel, which determined the location, the destination or the desire to photograph the area? Were you enamored with the location’s culture, beauty and appeal or did the lure of the photography dictate the spot? It could be both. Sometimes the location wins, and sometimes the photography wins. Regardless, what you bring back in the form of pictures is undoubtedly important. Use the following tips to come home with better travel photographs.
The most important tip I offer gets addressed prior to leaving. Thoroughly research your destination so you know what to expect. For instance, if you plan a once-in-a-lifetime safari to Africa to witness the migration of wildebeests and the dates don’t coincide with the time they migrate, that’s a big oops. What about weight and baggage restrictions while you’re in the bush? Does the Taj Mahal look best in sunrise or sunset light? If you plan your itinerary around the wrong time of day, this would be devastating. Compile all the info you need by reading travel books and brochures. Digest all the info you can absorb. Search the Internet. Go online and research Meetup groups to see if there’s one in your area that focuses on travel. If so, join and attend some meetings. If the above sounds tedious, go on an organized tour. If photography is the focus, be sure it’s dedicated to capturing photos at sunrise and sunset.
The equipment you take may be dictated by airline restrictions. [Including laptops! Check out our Airline Laptop Ban Guide For Photographers.] My motto is: Pare it down but don’t leave it home. Put a lot of thought into what lens, flash and filters you’ll need, how many batteries and chargers to bring, etc. Lay out all your gear in advance and evaluate each piece relative to the photos you plan to make. Eliminate the obvious. Every time you pass by what remains, once again think about the photographic possibilities each one offers. Create a “maybe” pile off to the side. In the end, bring the essentials and make due with what you bring. Once you’re packed and you find you have room, add the more important “maybe” pieces. Don’t forget power converters and adapters if your travels bring you to a country where 120 volts isn’t standard.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, make sure you’re out in the field for the most meaningful photos at sunrise and sunset. Regardless of the subject matter you photograph, the light at these times of the day provide great opportunities to make the best photos. The sun is low on the horizon, the light is soft, the color is warm and the overall quality is unsurpassed. Hopefully, the research you did orients you for the direction the subject faces. If you find you have to photograph architectural subjects midday, capture a bracketed series of exposures and convert them into a single file using High Dynamic Range software such as Nik HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix.
A favorite subject of travel photographers is the people and faces of the locals. Since you’ll make a number of these shots midday, soften the harsh contrast by augmenting the light. The easiest way to do this is with flash. You’ll need one that’s powerful enough to override the sunlight that illuminates their faces. The pop-up flash on many DSLRs doesn't have enough power to fill in deep shadows caused by midday sun. Purchase a flash that mounts to your hot-shoe and emits a lot of light. If flash isn’t an option, work with your subjects in the open shade. The light is even and flattering.
I always say that the most important ingredient to determine the success of a photo is light. Composition comes next. To create a good composition, you need a clean background. Before you press the shutter, do a background check. The most amazing subject in front of a cluttered background nets a photo that shows chaos and confusion. If the background is busy, move to your left or right, or get higher or lower to see if it can be improved. Open your aperture to use shallow depth of field to your advantage. Use a long lens, as they inherently provide less depth of field. Combine the use of a long lens with a wide-open aperture to help create an out-of-focus background.
Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours and safari to Tanzania.